This is the third blog in a series exploring four recommendations from WSUP’s new report, The missing link in climate adaptation, released ahead of COP26. Read the full report here:

Recommendation three: Strengthen systems

When we think of climate-resilient water and sanitation, many of us will picture infrastructure. We might think of piped water and sewage networks which can withstand extreme weather events. And we picture toilets that can withstand flooding.

This picture is not wrong. As our earlier blog explored, infrastructure is critically important. But the picture is incomplete.

The residents of slums and informal settlements are some of the people most vulnerable to climate change in the world. To withstand the impacts of the changing climate, these residents will depend on access to basic services. And basic services cannot be delivered at scale, over time, unless the basic elements of a functional WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) system are in place.

In any context, water & sanitation is not only about taps and toilets. It is about complex systems. Climate-resilient urban WASH is no different. It means resilient systems that enable institutions to understand, prepare and adapt to changing circumstances. It is about taking a long-term view.

To strengthen systems we must start with the building blocks. Across countries, we need to ensure the foundations are in place for service providers to accelerate water and sanitation access at the city level. So what does this mean in practice? What are these much needed foundations?

Informal waste collectors in Malindi, Kenya, where an inclusive plan aims to prepare the city for the future

Policies and finance

As a first step, climate adaptation must be reflected in water and sanitation policies. These policies provide the foundation from which everything else follows. Currently, national WASH policies often fail to address climate change. Policymakers need to do more to drive action which focuses on extending services to those who are the most vulnerable to climate change.

Climate adaptation must also be integrated into long-term water and sanitation planning. In developing these plans, flexibility is key. Because climate change is introducing uncertainty, service providers need the freedom to adapt to emerging or unexpected conditions.  A range of approaches should be adopted to deliver water and sanitation in the city, to diversify risk, and avoid dependence on any one solution.

The coastal city of Malindi, Kenya, provides an example to follow. City leaders in Malindi have created an inclusive citywide plan to ensure all residents have access to safe sanitation. The citywide inclusive sanitation plan outlines a phased approach for sanitation, excreta and wastewater management and re-use, identifying four types of sanitation systems to address the income and density differences in Malindi. The plan also integrates sanitation and solid waste management, recognising the importance of coordinating action across these two areas, particularly given the impact caused by flooding.

Financing is also core. In Mozambique, the response to Cyclone Idai, which caused catastrophic damage to the coastal city of Beira, included extensions to the water network and other infrastructure improvements. But there is also less visible work taking place, to strengthen key elements of the system, and to place service delivery on a sustainable footing. This includes the planned introduction of a surcharge on water bills, to raise new revenues that can be used to improve sanitation in low-income areas. More broadly, responsive financing mechanisms, and flexible tariff regulation, can help ensure services are sustained through emergencies and periods of high demand.

In the city of Beira, Mozambique, new financial models make the water system more resilient

Watch the story of how Beira has been rebuilding after Cyclone Idai

Responsibilities and accountability

Finally, clear responsibilities and strong accountability are essential. Without these elements, basic services will not reach the people most vulnerable to climate change. It must be clear who is legally responsible for providing services. And responsible authorities must be incentivised to deliver against their mandate. In Kenya, the national regulator WASREB is leading the way, through the introduction of a pro-poor key performance indicator which requires urban utilities to report on service provision to low-income areas. Measures like these can ultimately have a huge impact in ensuring the poorest have access to the services they need to survive the impacts of climate change.

In some countries the journey ahead will be a long one. Madagascar, for example, is highly vulnerable to a range of climate change impacts. But the WASH system is not positioned to respond effectively. There is a lack of clarity over mandates for sanitation. Regulation of sanitation services is ineffective or non-existent. In this context, achieving climate-resilient water and sanitation is a long-term process, which requires sustained engagement with the institutions involved. For this reason, WSUP is working with the utility JIRAMA to strengthen water supply, but also with city-level communes, with the sanitation institution SAMVA, and with Ministries at the national level, to strengthen the wider WASH system.

None of this is to negate the importance of acting now to protect the most vulnerable to climate change. There are urgent steps which must be taken in many cities to ensure emergency preparedness, including to mitigate the impacts of extreme events like Cyclone Idai. But the task is much greater than that. Real climate resilience will only be achieved if we take the long-term view and ensure the elements of a functional, adaptive WASH system are in place.

Top image: JIRAMA Mandroseza II Bis water augmentation scheme in Madagascar